Earlier this year, a young migrant was naturalised as a French citizen after heroically saving a baby. I watched this news very closely and couldn’t help but remember ‘Bichon chez les nègres’, an essay by Roland Barthes who was trying to demystify the myth of heroism. Here Barthes was criticising French colonial imagery while at the same time revealing his own linguistic and cultural background by calling black people ‘Negros’.
At a time where European countries are trying to close their borders to avoid what some such as Marine Le Pen leader of the extreme-right party in France sees as an erosion of society, this so-called ‘good immigrant hero’ narrative came back to slap me in the face. I can’t help but wonder what underpins this narrative and the media coverage. Yes, the gesture was impressive. Yes, it deserved to make all the headlines. But did this young person deserve to be French more than his peers? I would say yes, but not for the reasons given by the government and I will explain why.
For some years now, children have been on the move, crossing borders, enduring countless of human rights violations, hoping for a brighter future. These children come from Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They did not ask for a life of exile and suffering. They have been packed into detention camps, left alone in hostels, put under a microscope of heavy suspicion – “Is he really 12 years old?” – even sometimes evaluated with the Greulich and Pyle bone age assessment designed for Caucasian people, but who cares if this test is relevant for African and Asian people, as long as we can speed up the process...?
Migration has been said to be diluting the language, it is fostering polarization and political exploitation, bringing a common narrative between the good migrant who didn’t cross the border illegally and is an asylum-seeker, and the bad migrant who crossed the border illegally and is an economic migrant. And the context of climate change has been completely ignored.
To be a good migrant, you usually have to lie or at least stretch the truth because no one really cares about what happened during your journey. What we want to know is where you come from so we can make a quick decision.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children, every child should be welcomed, taken care of in the same way, and given the same chances. But this is not happening. At least not in France, my country. We should have imagined that with the knowledge we now have of what affects childhood, child development, and the fundamental needs of the children and care practices, there would be better UNCRC compliant systems and services to support children. It isn’t happening for a number of reasons, starting with stigmatisation and a myth of the ‘broken’ child that hasn’t yet been debunked.
As a care leaver, I have been stigmatised since I was young. I have been called ‘a social case’ – “cas social” in French, a pejorative word used to refer to young people in the care system or delinquents or street children - because my family was poor. If I’d had the knowledge I have now, I would have claimed the name ‘survivor’: I am a survivor. And these children on the move are survivors. All children facing dramatic situations are survivors. And for that, they deserve the warmest welcome.
Survivor: a person who copes well with difficulties in their life.
If we take such a definition, we could ask ourselves what coping well with difficulties means? I would say that being still alive is coping well. But, unfortunately, just staying alive isn’t enough for the long-term. Showing love and empathy are the only two acts that can help a young person in care or facing difficulties to really live and not just survive.
Empathy can only be effective by stepping out of oneself, by endeavouring to understand different points of view to understand a situation – much like the more common phrase ‘walk a mile…’ Indeed, living museums such as the one created in England by the Anti Slavery Society in 1823 to abolish slavery are a good example of how long some have worked to understand social issues and social stigma – speaking to those with direct experience, letting them tell their real life stories in their words, so that we can build a collective understanding and a common sense of history that can help to educate, and thereby never reproduce or replicate past injustices.
We have a tendency to use binary language and put people in boxes, with a nice tag. The label may be simple and some people may choose to label themselves in order to claim an identity, it helps them situate themselves compared to others.
Care leavers tend to hide their identity, as being ‘a social’ as I was labelled often means not knowing who you are. At the age of 18 years old, social services asked me to make choices for my future: where do I want to go? What should I be? Just as any teenager, I was lost. But I was even more lost because I felt I had no identity and as such, life just seemed to be something I had to cope with, waiting for something better to come along. I felt as if I was half a person and I carried with me the shame of my childhood and a big hole in my heart that hadn’t been filled enough with love. I drowned myself in sorrow for years as I wandered through life, in search of myself.
Gnothi seauton. Know thyself. This principle, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo, is used today to sell a lot of personal development books but I believe it has been misinterpreted, as Cynthia Fleury tells us in her book ‘The Irrepleacables’. It doesn’t mean an ego-centred introspection but a heed to know thyself through outrospection - by stepping out of ourselves, by knowing all we lack, only then we truly understand ourselves.
In the years to come humanity will have to make important choices that could lead to our own extinction or open a new chapter of the modern civilization: one that chooses to go beyond the labels, to reclaim citizenship and to know oneself by stepping out of ourselves. The only way to do that is to bring back empathy, to ask for true representation of people’s lives, journeys and challenges, and to face the realities others face.
There are infinite ways to make this happen: placing culture and art at the forefront; investing in education and inviting young people to be critical about how we are taught history; understanding the true meaning of universal citizenship; reclaiming true democracy; and choosing to embark on the road to humanity by understanding that there will be more movement of people, more hardship and poverty to overcome, more children facing tremendous difficulties but that we can unite together to be as resilient as possible and prevent the impact of division and discrimination. Together it is, or alone it will be.